The end of the European war with France in the spring of 1814 freed tens of thousands of British troops for the war against the United States. These veteran soldiers of Wellington’s army had repeatedly defeated Napoleon’s greatest Marshals, from the borders of Portugal to Paris.
On June 2, 1814, a British expeditionary force commanded by Major General Robert Ross sailed from France. Aboard the ships were proud units with names like the King’s Own Regiment and Royal Scotts Fusiliers. Their objective was to attack the United States and retaliate against incursions into Canada, especially the burning of government buildings after the Battle of York.
The British Invade the United States
When the fleet reached the mouth of the Potomac on August 17, General Ross and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn determined that their first objective was to destroy Commodore Joshua Barney’s American naval flotilla in the Chesapeake area. These gunboats had been impeding the Royal Navy’s operations and were sheltering in shallow waters of the Patuxent River.
General Ross’s army disembarked at Benedict, Maryland on August 20. The invasion force consisted of approximately 4,500 British regulars and marines, with two 3-pounder cannons and a 6-pounder. They immediately began marching north, threatening Commodore Barney’s fleet and Washington, D. C.
The Americans are Unprepared for the Invasion
Until the summer of 1814, the United States’ strategy for defending the eastern seaboard depended upon inexperienced state militia. When word arrived that the European war had finally ended, and that Britain was transporting veteran troops to America, the U. S. scrambled to create a defense plan.
They chose Brigadier General William H. Winder to take charge. Captured during the chaotic Battle of Stoney Creek, General Winder had returned to the U. S. after a prisoner exchange. His forces consisted of mostly state militia units spread across miles of countryside. When the British invaded, General Winder rushed to concentrate his forces.
The British March to Washington is Barely Contested
As the invaders marched towards Nottingham, an American reconnaissance force of about 2,500 men monitored their progress but did not engage the much larger British force. When the enemy continued north towards Upper Marlborough on August 22, General Winder withdrew his units to Long Old Fields, a location that was halfway between Upper Marlborough and Washington.
The American flotilla was trapped. Without American infantry to combat the invasion force, Commodore Barney and his sailors burned their gunboats rather than have them captured. He and his men, with two heavy cannons, joined General Winder at Long Old Fields. The British had obtained their first objective without firing a shot.
On August 23, the invaders marched from Upper Marlborough towards Wood Yard, where they skirmished with American militia. The British had traveled 45 miles into enemy territory before meeting any opposition. That night, they camped ten miles from Washington.
General Winder Prepares his Defenses
The Americans were uncertain whether the British would attack west directly towards Washington or swing north through Bladensburg. General Winder prepared to counter either move. He withdrew his forces to the defensive works on the outskirts of Washington and ordered troops near Bladensburg to prepare to oppose an attack from that direction.
Around 10 o’clock on August 24, General Winder learned that the British were moving north. He immediately gave marching orders to his troops and then preceded them to Bladensburg. The defensive position chosen was on the west bank of the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River.
As reinforcements arrived, some only minutes before the British attacked, they were hastily positioned. Mistakes were made. Units were too scattered to support other units. This left the army susceptible to being defeated in detail; that is, strong points could be assaulted one after the other without support from other strong points. When the attack began, General Winder had more than 5,000 men, including approximately 500 Regulars, more than 4,500 militia, and eighteen 6-pounder cannons. Commodore Barney was also present with 500 sailors, 100 marines, and two 18-pounders.
The British Attack near Bladensburg
General Ross surveyed the American defenses from Lowndes Hill and then attacked immediately. While crossing the East Branch, the British Light Brigade took casualties from accurate artillery and rifle fire. Once across, they quickly defeated the enemy’s weak and unsupported skirmish line, which fell back on the second line.
Encouraged by their easy victory over the first defensive line, the Light Brigade impetuously attacked the second line before waiting for reinforcements. This charge was stopped by heavy fire, and then the Light Brigade was pushed back by an American counterattack. After being reinforced, the British resumed their attack. They fired Congreve rockets, a new invention that terrified some American militia units, who panicked and fled the battlefield. This allowed the British to outflank the remaining line. General Winder ordered his second defensive line to withdraw, but the militia’s retreat became a rout.
Next, the British attacked the right side of the third American defensive line. Major Kramer’s battalion, placed in advance of the third line, was pushed back after a sharp engagement. The British advance temporarily stalled as the Americans repulsed every attack with the help of an artillery crossfire from the heavy naval guns and a battery of 6-pounders.
To avoid the guns, the British maneuvered left and assaulted a hill at the extreme right of the American line. The militia atop the hill had been hastily positioned moments before the battle began. They offered a weak resistance and then retreated. Now that General Winder’s last line of defense was outflanked, he ordered the entire army to withdraw.
Results of the Battle of Bladensburg
The American losses were approximately 25 killed and 41 wounded. Commodore Barney was severely injured and captured. The British casualties were 64 men killed and 185 wounded. Despite their greater losses, the British won the battle.
There are several reasons why the Americans lost. General Winder was a citizen soldier, while General Ross was a 25-year veteran of the British army. In addition, the American troops hastily prepared a scattered defense. Most importantly, the inexperienced American militia was no match for the confident British veterans from Wellington’s victorious army in France.
General Winder’s remaining forces made an orderly withdrawal to defensive works in Georgetown. General Ross briefly rested his army and then marched south with the objective of destroying Washington.